Wesley Diphoko, Head of the Independent Digital Lab (02 June 2017)

JOHANNESBURG - Dr Hleze Kunju’s doctoral thesis that was written in isiXhosa is a huge moment for African languages. It has sent a clear message that African languages matter and that they should form part of mainstream society in the form of academic writing.

This important milestone should serve as an inspiration to take African languages seriously by making them part of society, especially in business and on the internet.

Currently there are eleven official languages in South Africa: Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu. Besides Afrikaans, which is doing very well online, very few African languages feature on the internet currently. If this trend continues, by 2050 African languages will be nowhere to be found online and that should worry all people who care.

Besides the written word online, there’s now a rise of artificial intelligence technology tools that use English to communicate with people for personal assistance. Here’s the description of one by Amazon called Amazon Echo:

* Plays all your music from Amazon Music, Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and more using just your voice.

* Call or message anyone hands-free with your Echo device. Also, instantly connect to other Echo devices in your home using just your voice.

* Fills the room with immersive, 360º omni-directional audio. Play music simultaneously across Echo devices with multi-room music (Spotify and Sirius XM support coming soon).

* Hears you from across the room with far-field voice recognition, even while music is playing.

* Answers questions, reads the news, reports traffic and weather, reads audiobooks from Audible, gives info on local businesses, provides sports scores and schedules, controls Amazon Video on Fire TV and more using the Alexa Voice Service.

* Controls lights, fans, TVs, switches, thermostats, garage doors, sprinklers, locks, and more with compatible connected devices from WeMo, Philips Hue, Sony, Samsung SmartThings, Nest, and others.

* Always getting smarter and adding new features, plus thousands of skills like Uber, Domino’s, DISH, and more.

What is missing from this description of Amazon Echo is that the language you will use to communicate with this device is English. The same is true of other similar tools such as Apple Home.

It’s important to note that these tools will be used in homes, which means essentially English will be the main language to communicate with our technology devices at home.

The other interesting technology in this regard is Google Maps, which we use in our cars to assist with road directions. If technology trends are anything to go by, this means that we will also communicate with our cars through English. This will also be the case with other technology tools that will require use of voice to communicate.

What this means is that beyond what Africans read online, in the future at homes they will be forced to speak English to tools such as Amazon Echo.

In cars, Africans will be forced to speak English and will be spoken to in English by their own devices.

The future does not have to be only in English. Allowing English to be the online medium of communication online would be tantamount to economic suicide for African online space.

People can change tech

The beauty about technology for now is that as human beings we can control it. This week Twitter announced the change from 140 character limitation to 280 limitation. Although this change is minor, it demonstrates technology can be altered to do what we want it to do.

There’s a need to start viewing the African online space in the same way as we view the land in the economic sense.

Currently there’s a huge gap to derive value (social and economic) from African languages online. The process of ensuring the survival of African languages online should begin with the creation of African language content online (text, audio, video and other mediums).

In the South African context it should be possible by now to access any government website in all other African languages. Many who quickly raise the cost card when this matter is raised should think more about the future than the present.

Language translation tools that are driven mainly by artificial intelligence will also become crucial in the process, enabling African languages to exist in the digital space. Africans who care should drive the process of ensuring that African languages form part of the digital space.

As part of enabling African languages to exist online the Independent Media Lab as from tomorrow will host the WordPress International Translation Day - 3. The event is a 24-hour global event dedicated to the translation of the WordPress ecosystem (core, themes, plugins).

It’s a cool mix of digital and physical, the international community of the WordPress polyglots (translators) will meet at the same time locally and digitally for a 24 hour translating marathon that will provide inspiration and training both to coders and translators on localising and internationalising through live talks and local meet-ups. This years event is double: Saturday has also been designated as International Translation Day by the UN.

Independent Media Lab is contributing towards enabling African languages online to make sure that they do not die online.

For more details about the WordPress Translation Day click here. 

Wesley Diphoko is the head of the Independent Media Lab and founder of the Kaya Labs.